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Gonzaga baseball closes in on conference tournament berth

UPDATED: Thu., May 17, 2018

Mac Lardner will be Gonzaga’s starting pitcher in Game 3 of the weekend series against Santa Clara. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Mac Lardner will be Gonzaga’s starting pitcher in Game 3 of the weekend series against Santa Clara. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Justin Reed The Spokesman-Review

With one more win, the Gonzaga Bulldogs will clinch a spot in the West Coast Conference baseball tournament for the fifth time in six seasons.

The Zags (14-10), tied for second place with Saint Mary’s, host the Santa Clara Broncos (11-13) this weekend at the Patterson Baseball Complex and Coach Steve Hertz Field in the regular-season, three-game series finale for both teams.

This will be the first matchup of the season between the teams. Last season, the Bulldogs swept the Broncos in three games in Santa Clara.

The Broncos swept Loyola Marymount last weekend, setting up a thrilling crescendo to the 2018 season. The top four teams in the conference advance to the tournament.

Three teams are within 2 1/2 games of first-place Pepperdine (16-8.

It would take a series sweep for Santa Clara to hope to make the playoffs. The Broncos sit 2 1/2 games behind fourth-place San Francisco.

Fifth-place LMU (12-12) plays Saint Mary’s (14-10) this weekend. San Francisco (15-12) has concluded its conference season.

But you won’t catch the Zags peeking at the other conference scores in the dugout this weekend.

“Our message to our team and internally is we just need to focus on controlling what we can control and giving (Friday) night our very best effort,” assistant coach Brandon Harmon said.

“Try not to get distracted by scoreboard watching, just controlling our own destiny and playing good baseball. Hopefully, that puts us in a good spot for Saturday and Sunday and for next week as well.”

GU will hand the ball to staff ace Daniel Bies (5-4, 2.59 ERA) for Friday’s opener. North Central grad Alek Jacob (5-5, 3.20) will take the mound on Saturday and Mac Lardner (6-2, 2.40) will finish off the regular season on Sunday. All three names have been penciled in every series this season.

“It has been a huge advantage for us,” Harmon said. “Those three guys have been extremely consistent, all throwing the ball really well. … Mac Lardner has been a rock on the back end and the other two guys have been great on Friday and Saturday.”

As a team, the Bulldogs are 10th in the country in ERA and second in the WCC.

But they will have their hands full as SCU leads the WCC in home runs (46) and scoring (5.5 runs per game). The Broncos are led by Jake Brodt and John Cresto, two of the top offensive threats in the conference.

“I think their biggest strength is offensively,” Harmon said. “They have a few guys who can run the ball out of the yard and they have the potential to put up some big innings. Offensively, they definitely have some firepower in both Brodt and Cresto.”

The Broncos don’t sport a high batting average, sitting ninth in the conference. They are third in the league in on-base percentage, thanks to 257 free passes (walks and hit by pitches). But the Zags don’t need to worry about singles driving in those runners because the long ball has fueled the Broncos’ offense. Their league-high 46 home runs are 15 more than the next-closest team.

But the weekend weather will not be home-run friendly. The forecast calls for wet and mild temperatures, with the humidity sitting above 50 percent all three days. All are factors that hurt homer odds.

If the Zags win at least one game, the WCC Tournament in Stockton, California, will be their next stop on 24 Thursday.

“That is always our first goal, we want to make the conference tournament and then you would like to be the No. 1 seed if you can,” Harmon said.

While the Bulldogs would need some help to earn the No. 1 seed, they have made the conference tournament more often than any other team since 2013 when the current format was implemented.

“I think it is a testament to the guys who have come through the program the last six years,” Harmon said. “I don’t think anybody else in the league has done that.

“We have had some good players. It is just a matter of getting hot when we get down there to Stockton and that is one thing we haven’t done yet is we haven’t won that tournament. We have been there more than anybody, but we haven’t won it.”

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